How Britain Enthusiastically Teamed Up with Bush's Horrific Torture and Rendition Agenda
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Twenty-four hours after the drafting of this memo, on January 10, British ministers had second thoughts about prosecuting British Muslims captured in Afghanistan. Government lawyers were warning that these men appeared not to have committed any offense under UK law and there was deep anxiety that the US government would be furious if they were brought back to the UK and subsequently released. Furthermore, police interviews in the UK would not be so effective as interrogations conducted overseas. So ministers decided, in the words of a secret Foreign Office memorandum, that their "preferred option" was the rendition of British nationals to Guantánamo.
Events moved rapidly. Later that day Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, issued a classified telegram to the British embassy in Washington and embassies across the Middle East. No objection should be raised to the transfer of the British nationals to Guantánamo, he ordered, as this was "the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objectives." He added, however, that their removal from Afghanistan should be delayed long enough to allow questioning by a "specialist team" of MI5 interrogators.
The first team of MI5 interrogators had arrived in Afghanistan the previous day, joining a number of MI6 officers who had entered the country at the end of 2001. The first interrogation was conducted at Bagram just as Straw was sending his telegram.
The makeshift prison at Bagram was located in a disused factory built during the Soviet occupation. There were discarded pieces of machinery scattered around the shop floor and notices in Russian hung on the walls. Concertina wire divided the building into pens. The interrogations took place in several offices on a first-floor landing.
By the time MI6 and MI5 officers first entered the prison there were 80-odd prisoners there, mostly Afghans and Arab fighters. A handful were British and it was immediately obvious they were being mistreated. Some of the prisoners were chained upright inside the pens, with hoods over their heads. Others were being beaten. One of the officers alerted his superiors that the first prisoner he questioned had been abused by the US military before the session began and the complaint was passed rapidly back to London.
The next day both MI6 and MI5 sent written guidance to all of their officers in Afghanistan. Covering two pages, these instructions had been prepared earlier in anticipation of such a complaint and were very carefully crafted.
This was the first sign that in the "war on terror" – the battle over "the ideas and values that would shape the 21st century," as Tony Blair put it – Britain and the US would stand shoulder to shoulder. Even when working the dark side. The guidance said:
You have commented on their treatment. It appears from your description that they may not be being treated in accordance with the appropriate standards. Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this. That said, HMG’s stated commitment to human rights makes it important that the Americans understand that we cannot be party to such ill treatment nor can we be seen to condone it. In no case should they be coerced during or in conjunction with an SIS1 interview of them. If circumstances allow, you should consider drawing this to the attention of a suitably senior US official locally. It is important that you do not engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners.
So MI5 and MI6 officers should not be seen to condone torture and must certainly not torture any prisoners themselves. But, crucially, they could continue to question people whom they knew were being tortured.